The unease of a minority of vice-chancellors has stopped a campaign aimed at tackling sexual violence on university campuses. By Kristine Ziwica.

Exclusive: Universities axe consent program

Students stand in line with black tape over their mouths.
Australian National University students protest against sexual assault and harassment.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Efforts to tackle sexual violence on university campuses have been stymied by the sector’s peak body, the sector’s regulator and a number of universities that have not met commitments made following the Australian Human Rights Commission’s landmark 2017 report “Change the Course”.

The Saturday Paper can report that Universities Australia shelved a student-facing respectful relationships campaign because a minority of vice-chancellors among the 39 universities the body represents objected to its explicit nature.

The campaign materials assumed many university students were likely to be sexually active and that there was a need to normalise positive, respectful behaviour. The plan, according to a source with knowledge of the campaign, was to meet students on their terms. The idea was, “let’s act like the adults we are”.

End Rape on Campus and Fair Agenda are running a campaign calling on the Albanese government to urgently intervene to address “university failures” to prevent and respond to sexual violence. An open letter published last week, signed by 40 groups and individuals, called for an independent oversight body led by experts in sexual violence to provide the guidance and means to hold universities to account and encourage transparency, including sanctions when universities fail to comply.

The Turnbull government came close to establishing such a body in 2018, after the “Change the Course” report and End Rape on Campus’s “The red zone report” propelled the issue up the agenda. As Jess Hill reported in Quarterly Essay, The Reckoning: How #MeToo is Changing Australia, the then Education minister Simon Birmingham’s office had developed terms of reference, locked in a chair and “virtually all they were waiting to do was announce it”.

But when Malcolm Turnbull lost the leadership to Scott Morrison, the initiative was scrapped by the new Education minister, Dan Tehan. Two weeks later, Hill writes, End Rape on Campus founder Sharna Bremner received an email from an adviser to Birmingham, saying, “We were so close.”

Five years later, not enough has changed. A follow-up 2021 National Student Safety Survey found 275 students a week were being sexually assaulted within a university context, which equated to 14,300 sexual assaults a year. A recent study by Allison Henry, a research associate at the UNSW Australian Human Rights Institute, found while all 39 universities agreed to the “Change the Course” recommendation requiring them to be more transparent about sexual harm on campus, three-quarters were failing to.

Henry also found the Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA), the sector’s regulator, had failed to exercise regulatory oversight. Between 2017 and 2022, the agency undertook at least 60 investigations into complaints and registration assessments about sexual violence, but no enforcement action was taken. TEQSA has the power to impose administrative sanctions, fines or put conditions on university registration.

“In five of those instances, universities themselves went to TEQSA and said, ‘We think we’ve handled this badly’, and TEQSA gave them a green tick,” Henry says.

The lack of progress suggests university victims of sexual violence have been left behind while other workplaces have taken strong action following the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect @ Work inquiry. Similarly, respectful relationships education is being introduced in primary schools and secondary schools but not comprehensively at universities. “There’s a huge gap,” says Bremner. “University students are not covered by any of this work.”

Bremner says recent events at Universities Australia are a symptom of wider failures and indicative of the need for independent oversight. The campaign shelved by Universities Australia was developed with a $1.5 million grant from the federal government. At the time, the Morrison government was throwing money at various women’s safety programs in an attempt to overcome its so-called “woman problem”.

In late 2021 and early 2022, Universities Australia convened an independent reference group of experts to inform the development of the campaign. According to sources, market research was conducted to understand the attitudes and beliefs that gave rise to sexual violence on campuses, a creative agency was commissioned to develop the campaign, and iterations of the campaign were tested on the target audiences to ensure they had “cut-through”.

According to sources, that came to a halt later in 2022 when the campaign was presented to vice-chancellors. It became clear a minority “weren’t having a bar of it”.

Nothing was put forward that wasn’t underpinned by market research, didn’t have the confidence of the creative agency and the independent reference group, or that hadn’t been successfully tested with audiences, according to sources. The issue was a minority of VCs found the more explicit, or “risqué”, nature of the campaign objectionable and blocked it.

When asked by Campus Review about the decision to shelve the campaign earlier this year, a spokesperson for Universities Australia said it agreed to sideline the campaign after “research” indicated a broad campaign “would unlikely have the cut-through required to be effective in shifting behaviours and attitudes”.

When Greta Doherty, the group manager of women’s safety at the Department of Social Services, which has oversight of the funding agreement with Universities Australia, was asked about the fate of the campaign at senate estimates in May, she said it was in response to feedback from universities: “Through that initial advisory mechanism a broad campaign targeted at universities wasn’t the most effective way of reaching students.”

There are now questions about whether such “research” exists given the decision to shelve the campaign was not based on research into its likely effectiveness but instead on the opposition of a minority of VCs.

When asked about the research, Universities Australia declined to share it. When the Department of Social Services was asked about the research, a spokesperson said they “did not have access to the research cited by Universities Australia”.

The spokesperson also declined to answer further questions from The Saturday Paper about why the department accepted the explanation that a “broad” campaign would not be effective, given that appears to be at odds with government policy. DSS has spent tens of millions since 2016 on a broad, community-wide social marketing campaign to prevent gendered violence, “Stop it at the Start”.

The assertion made by Doherty at estimates, suggesting the advice to change the scope of the project came via the “initial advisory mechanism”, appears to be incorrect. The independent reference group, which included Bremner, was not consulted about the decision to change the scope of the project.

By early 2023, Bremner told The Saturday Paper, she realised she had been cut out and not told about changes to the program. By that stage, she had sent three emails to staff at Universities Australia requesting more information about the status of the campaign over seven months. She never received a reply.

In late February, Bremner finally emailed Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson. On March 1, she says, “I received an email from the Universities Australia deputy chief executive informing me that DSS and Universities Australia had agreed to a change in strategy, no longer delivering a campaign. The focus was now on creating a ‘community of practice’ instead.”

Asked about the accuracy of the statement made by Doherty at senate estimates, a spokesperson said the department had “nothing further to add”.

This week a “community of practice” meeting and a new “best practice” guide, to which the $1.5 million in federal funds was diverted, were launched. When The Saturday Paper contacted Universities Australia ahead of the event, a spokesperson would not share any information about the community of practice, including the agenda, who was invited and whether student representatives or victim survivors had been asked to participate. Nor would Universities Australia share the new guidance.

The Saturday Paper can confirm the National Union of Students did not receive an invitation, nor did several experts who have conducted research into the effectiveness of university responses to sexual violence, including Allison Henry.

A spokesperson for DSS declined to respond to questions about whether there should have been more transparency, given the community of practice and best practice guidance were funded with government money. The spokesperson would only say the new “best practice” resource would be posted on the Universities Australia website.

The department also declined to respond to questions asking if the new “best practice” resource for the prevention of sexual violence on university campuses was redundant given such a resource was developed by Our Watch in 2021 and is readily available alongside a suite of “how to” guides.

“We’ve had five years to be able to watch what universities have been doing, and what TEQSA has or has not been doing,” Henry says. “It means that we’re now in this position to really say, in a very evidence-based way, that this approach is not working. We need to look elsewhere.”

On Wednesday, the “Australian Universities Accord Interim Report” listed student safety among its five immediate key recommendations, proposing national cabinet “immediately engage with state and territory governments and universities to improve university governance, particularly focusing on ... student and staff safety”.

The Education minister, Jason Clare, has pledged to act on that recommendation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Exclusive: Consent program axed".

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